Underlying Values

15. 3. 2017

Ronald Dworkin, Religion without God, trans. Bogdan Baran, Aletheia, Warsaw 2014.

In four essays that make up the book Religion without God, Ronald Dworkin—an outstanding, recently deceased American philosopher of politics and law—proposes a condensed project of something which, if we tried to be faithful to the author’s intent, should probably be called a mild social utopia. As befits an honest representative of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophical writing, solidly grounded (albeit with modifications) in the Enlightenment conception of rationality, logic, and respect for the undoubted achievements of empirical science, Dworkin seems to really believe that if we closely follow his argument, we will inevitably reach the same final destination, to which he has arrived earlier, and where, with a kindly smile and a bunch of flowers, he is quietly waiting for our arrival. For the primary objective of the trip proposed by Dworkin is no less than global averting of religious conflicts, which has— as he repeatedly reminds his readers—claimed a tremendous number of victims throughout the history of mankind.

The bloody experiences of the twentieth century by no means led to their expiry; on the contrary, they are rampant today and there is no indication that they are going to subside in the near future. The “Einstein Lectures” delivered in December 2011 at the University of Berne, from which this collection of essays germinated, start from an observation that religious wars are still ominously present in today’s world. Dworkin emphasizes that religion still is a perfect excuse for violence, that both the people professing various Gods and the atheists, convinced that gods are an illusion, perceive differences between them as a sufficient condition for using physical force against each other. This is an undoubted paradox, and not the only one, generated by allegedly triumphant and unquestionably fast-developing science. But the point is—concludes Dworkin—that participants and navigators of these disputes do not understand that the divisions with which they so willingly and vigorously identify are in fact illusory. Or rather: based on semantic misunderstandings and conceptual imprecisions. Once we realize the essence of these misconceptions, we will be able to overcome the discord – and thus once and for all give up the destructive and pointless disputes, directing our efforts at more constructive goals.

The contemporary landscape of theoretical disputes between theists and atheists (in Religion without God the latter are bravely represented by Richard Dawkins, an archetypal naturalist, rationalist and enemy of all religion) is mired, according to Dworkin, in a sterile debate about the logical status of literally conceived religious claims. Is it true or not true—theists and atheists carry on their ritual dispute—that good God the Father created the Earth, Man and the Universe, and then, out of his infinite love, he placed, both within the material reality, as well as within the human soul, a variety of “sparks” through which the rational mind is able to intuitively find His trace and to unite with its loving Creator in an act of boundless faith?

If, says Dworkin, we look at today’s debate on, for example, the merits of teaching of religion in schools, presence of religious symbols in the public space, privileges enjoyed by representatives of various faiths or even the role of religion in modern society—it will inevitably turn out that they drift towards the speculations mentioned above, which are of course characterized by a fundamental inconclusiveness. That is why Dworkin assumes a somewhat disdainful attitude towards both religious fundamentalists and new atheists—led by Dawkins—who in his perspective take methodologically symmetric positions, although this methodology leads them to quite different conclusions. But there can be no constructive dialogue between thus defined positions or camps. Any conversation is impossible, the law of the excluded middle rules here.

This is why Dworkin proposes a complete redefinition of the basic categories we use when thinking and talking about religion. Discreetly referring to such thinkers as Spinoza and Paul Tillich, he is looking for a way out of the vicious theistic-atheistic circle in which the question of the existence of a personal God becomes the central point of metaphysical, but also political identification. Trying to extract the essence of religious attitude from multiple theoretical ideas and their practical embodiments, Dworkin concludes that an absolutely elementary feature of this attitude is the recognition of an “independent reality of values,” and more specifically he speaks of “accepting the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first is that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person possesses an inborn and inalienable responsibility for trying to make his or her life successful, that is decency, recognizing an ethical responsibility for oneself and moral responsibility for others—not only when we happen to recognize it as important, but because it is important by itself regardless of whether we believe in it or not. The other is that what we call nature—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder. Together, these two general axiological judgments proclaim an inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are a part of nature because we have physical existence and persistence: nature is the habitat and nourishment of our physical lives. We separate ourselves from it, because we are aware of ourselves as living a life and we are forced to make decisions which jointly determine what kind of life we have chosen.”

“Now,” says Dworkin, “if we concentrate on such an axiological view of religion, there is a chance that we build a pretty solid platform of agreement between the warring camps of religious theists and religious [in the sense mentioned above] atheists.” Among the latter Dworkin includes not only Paul Tillich and Spinoza, but also Albert Einstein – for all of them, explicitly distancing themselves from open theism (a belief that there is some absolutely perfect being endowed with will and consciousness), at the same time believed in the inherent majesty and beauty of the universe, or in objectively reasonable nature of human life, both in the individual and the collective sphere.

When considering all sorts of philosophical and theological concepts of faith or religiousness, we eventually arrive, says Dworkin, at that axiological objectivism which is the very core of the religious worldview. At the same time, however, it is not limited to institutional religion, placing the worship of a personal deity in its center. Not at all—we find this view in very many philosophical propositions. It is present in both the atheist Buddhism (atheist because not recognizing the concept of a personal deity) and the risky metaphors of Einstein, who—being initially convinced of the absurdity of quantum mechanics, and considering that the uncertainty principle cannot operate at the most subtle level of things—claimed with full conviction that “God does not play dice,” (which anyway has been proven to be false).

According to Dworkin, the only people actually excluded from this consensus are metaphysical naturalists, who reduce all issues of meaning or beauty to the level of subjective experience. The naturalist and emotivist—meaning an opponent of metaphysics, convinced that there is nothing outside of nature, and that all our aesthetic and moral judgments are ultimately an expression of our emotional states—in Dworkin’s perspective is a figure of radical difference, someone with whom a religious man will never be able to build any community of experience.

However, to overcome naturalism, an anti-naturalist must ground his belief in something more than just his personal subjective liking. It is a necessary condition of religion fulfilled. A condition, which Dworkin forcefully demands in his book. The question of choosing this or that worldview cannot be a matter of personal predilections, for this would be tantamount to confirmation of the naturalist claim. That is why, guiding his readers through the tortuous paths of quantum physics and modern physical theories, Dworkin seeks to justify the thesis about the existence of an objective axiological order grounded in the structure of reality, manifested in such features of this reality as mathematicality, regularity, simplicity and harmony. At the same time—he swears at every juncture—none of these predicates necessarily implies the existence of a personal deity and at the same time does not exclude axiological objectivism. The two views simply do not overlap; they do not come into any logical conflict with each other.

Here is a platform of agreement for theists and atheists – a vision of the world emerging from the achievements of modern science. A naturalist, of course, will not come to terms with the belief in the objective nature of qualities embodied in the religious experience of fascination with the universe, but, says Dworkin, it will be a strictly ideological choice on his part. One way or another, and anti-naturalist and naturalist will never come to an agreement.

This of course does not mean that they will be unable to function peacefully within one secular country. On the contrary, this kind of cohabitation is by all means possible, provided that the principle regulating the life of the secular country will be ethical independence rather than a special privilege granted to this or the other church.

What does this ethical independence mean? In short, it is a set of the most general values which form the foundation for laws defining the scope of state institutions and other collective and individual actors involved in the social game. “If we deny the special right to free religious practice and we rely only on the general right to ethical independence, religions may be forced to constrain their practices in such a way that they comply with reasonable, non-discriminatory rules showing the same concern for them as for other actors,” says Dworkin.

So is it true that Dworkin’s project is a mild form of Utopia, as I wrote at the beginning? Or perhaps it is a quite realistic proposal, which might infuse some life-giving energy into the rusty dens of ancient, ritualistic battles vigorously waged by the followers of various mutually exclusive mythologies? Followers completely unable to admit that the central narratives shaping their belligerent identity are nothing other than mythologies, arbitrary sets of notions without a clear reference to any reality outside their imagination?

There is one thing which makes the first conclusion more probable, namely religiousness as conceived by Dworkin seems contrived. His God is a God of philosophers, as is his impersonal universe. Reducing religiousness exclusively to the cognitive sphere—the only emotion present in the religious experience is the sense of fascination with the precision and grandeur of the universe—Dworkin seems to completely ignore other components making up the incredibly complex and multi-layered phenomenon of religiousness. The intellectual dimension of the answer to the question about the source of existence is undoubtedly important in religion. But other dimensions are equally important: psychological, social, and—last but not least— economic. Without considering these dimensions, it is impossible to understand, for example, the phenomenon of religious fundamentalisms often quoted by Dworkin. With his intellectual instruments (which work well in other areas of reflection, like the philosophy of law) Dworkin is in fact completely helpless when trying to analyze it. But this does not detract from the aptness of some of his observations and from the excellence of analysis revealing the metaphysical consequences of contemporary scientific theories, and it does not undermine his principal claim: that you do not have to be a theist to sense the mystery of existence.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website www.stawiszynski.org.

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